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date: 24 May 2022


Abstract and Keywords

This article introduces film and media. It shows that media exists in their own spaces of creation and are also subjects of critical inquiry. It then tries to locate media in culture and politics, and views them as mediations and extensions of man. It explains how media and political culture have become inseparable, where media is constantly used as a go-between for the struggle of political power over public morality. It states that critical analyses of media is composed of style, culture, and politics, and looks at the convergence of media, film, and culture. Finally, film and media studies are discussed.

Keywords: film, media, politics, culture, film studies, media studies, political power

Nondiscrete Objects

We are living in the late age of film. Jay Bolter (Chapter 1) quotes this remarkably prescient statement made by Paul Young in 1999.1 Now that Hollywood has completely absorbed digital graphics technologies, swapping out most of the old, analog F/X tricks filmmakers had employed since the turn of the twentieth century, it is suddenly confronting its own antiquity. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch realized this when he decided not to update and rename 20th Century Fox after the start of the new millennium. Declining box office receipts, rising DVD rentals and downloads, new online distribution channels, increasing use of high-definition video recording to replace film on the production side and digital projection on the exhibition side, all signal the demise of traditional motion picture production and reception.

Yet the demise of the traditional is a constant in film and other media, as well as in the criticism of all media types. Media are defined by the fact that they change. “Convergence” is the current catchphrase to describe the cascade of all “old” media into the digital, but throughout their history, the businesses of media have been in a continual state of flux, of uncertainty, of accommodating new technologies and new audiences. Writing about media reflects this state of constant flux. Ideas change as their subjects do; methodologies evolve as new media forms develop; and the ways in which media are situated in critical discourse keep changing as well. Questions arise as we attempt to separate media in order to create stable objects to study; contexts shift as we attempt to define what constitutes a media “text”: the work itself, a film or a (p. 4) television program; the businesses that create the work; the global processes of production, distribution, and reception that put the works in circulation?

Media objects—even the attempt to give them a generic name is difficult—are both discrete and nondiscrete simultaneously. Works of imagination, commodity items in the circulation of capital, cultural productions used by their consumers—they exist in their own spaces, the spaces of their creation, distribution, and reception, all of which also exist as subjects of critical inquiry. Film, television, photography, journalism, radio and recorded sound, advertising, and the new entities of the digital world are complete in themselves but at the same time completed only in the full context of the cultures that surround, create, and make use of them. This complexity is what this handbook addresses.

Where Are Media? Extensions/Mediations/Politics and Culture

Media are “extensions of man,” as Marshall McLuhan subtitled Understanding Media, a book that itself became a media sensation in the mid 1960s. His serious, somewhat delirious study brought to the fore the inextricable relationship of media and culture, indeed pointed to the existence of media culture, after a long period of denial and downright hostility—not that there hadn't been important attempts to regard media as serious imaginative events. Film, certainly, received attention as “art.” The poet Vachel Lindsay, writing about film art in his 1915 book, The Art of the Moving Picture, sought homologies with painting and sculpture. In The Seven Lively Arts, written in the early 1920s, Gilbert Seldes attempted a syncretic approach, looking at the prominent media of the time and offering cultural analysis, including an attempt to think through the phenomenon of celebrity. In a chapter entitled “An Open Letter to the Movie Magnates, Ignorant and Unhappy People,” he wrote about the always precarious relationship between media business and its audience, and called for a deeper understanding of film itself:

The Lord has brought you into a narrow place—what you would call a tight corner—and you are beginning to feel the pressure. A voice is heard in the land saying that your day is over. The name of the voice is Radio, broadcasting nightly to announce that the unequal struggle between the tired washerwoman and the captions written by or for Mr. Griffith is ended. It is easier to listen than to read. And it is long since you have given us anything significant to see.

(p. 5) You may say that radio will ruin the movies no more than the movies ruined the theatre. The difference is that your foundation is insecure: you are monstrously over-capitalized and monstrously undereducated; the one thing you cannot stand is a series of lean years. You have to keep on going because you have from the beginning considered the pictures as a business, not as an entertainment. Perhaps in your desperate straits you will for the first time try to think about the movie, to see it steadily and see it whole …

My suggestion to you is that you engage a number of men and women: an archaeologist to unearth the history of the moving picture; a mechanical genius to explain the camera and the projector to you; a typical movie fan, if you can find one; and above all a man of no practical capacity whatever: a theorist. Let these people get to work for you; do what they tell you to do. You will hardly lose more money than in any other case.2

Film studies answered Seldes's call many years after the fact. Serious critical engagement with other media followed. Soon the business of those “ignorant and unhappy people” became an object of study itself.

The Politics of Media Culture

These early attempts to extend film into the realm of art faltered in the face of a political culture whose force thwarted serious engagement. Seldes, a magazine editor, later became a media commentator, appearing on television during the 1950s, and continued his attempts at thinking seriously about media. But Seldes and other media critics had a difficult time in the immediate postwar period. The media were targets of the very popular culture they were part of, taking a bashing as cultural pariah, political subversive, despoiler of youth, inciter to sexual predation. The attacks were hardly new. The mock fear of moral destruction was always at hand. In the early days of radio and recorded sound, the strong influence of African American jazz on popular music exposed an always ready racism, which was itself a ready catalyst to warnings of moral decay. Here is the music chairwoman of the General Federation of Women's Clubs in 1921: “Jazz disorganizes all regular laws and order; it stimulates to extreme deeds, to a breaking away from all rules and conventions, and its influence is wholly bad. … The effect of jazz on the normal brain produces an atrophied condition … until … those under the demoralizing influence … are actually incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, between right and wrong.”3 The statement could be transposed word for word into the opprobrium poured on rock and roll in the mid-fifties, when African American music again catalyzed a musical form that would change popular music and popular culture for good and all. But racism was only one part of the large, ideological postwar (p. 6) campaign against media, waged against the most popular of the day—film—and the increasingly popular television. The campaign was both cultural and political.

The media object and political culture have never been separable. Much has been written about the government show trials on “communist infiltration” of the movie business, and the concurrent private “investigation” of television, all leading to the blacklisting of some of the most talented people in postwar media. The attacks of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), beginning in 1947, and the publication of Red Channels in the early 1950s, were the beginning of the assertion of a general right-wing control of the political culture that continues to this day. Battered by World War II, appalled by the revelations of the Nazi concentration camps, scared by nuclear power, the culture seemed ready to accept the fact that it was now threatened from within as well as without, and that the things that people loved, from comic books to music to movies, were dangerous. It was mass media as mass cultural threat. It is important to recall, however, that HUAC tried to nose itself into Hollywood before this, in the early 1940s, and met with a lack of interest. After the war, the movie industry was in trouble on a number of fronts: audiences were diminishing; the Supreme Court had severed the vertical integration of product and exhibition, so that the studios no longer owned the theaters that exhibited their product; the studios' anger over the labor unrest during the war became a source for revenge. When HUAC returned to Hollywood in the late 1940s, the studios found the hunt for communist infiltration irresistible.4 On the television side, a former FBI agent and a right-wing television producer, with some help from a supermarket owner, published Red Channels, a list of alleged left-wing entertainers. This bunch had only to threaten to remove the products advertised on these “communist” broadcasts from store shelves to scare the radio and television networks into submission.

The red scare and the excoriation of media were a clear result of a grab for power on all sides, part of the establishment of a conservative state in which industry would be protected above all else while the culture the industry produced was kept ideologically in line. As Jon Lewis pointed out, the collaboration of the movie studios with the government during the red purges was part of a process that moved them away from a paternalist model, in which each studio struggled with its talent and their unions, to a corporate model. “The new Hollywood we see in place today—a new Hollywood that rates and censors its own and everyone else's films and flaunts its disregard for antitrust legislation and federal communications and trade guidelines—is very much the product and the still-evolving legacy of the blacklist.”5 The same could be said of television. Red Channels provided what television and all media wanted and want still: an excuse that permitted control without blame, hegemony wrapped in righteousness.

Film and television were hardly the only targets. At mid-century, the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, which included such luminaries as Harley M. Kilgore, a founder of the National Science Foundation; Estes Kefauver, crime (p. 7) fighter and presidential hopeful; and James O. Eastland, racist and McCarthyite, investigated the effects of comic books on juvenile delinquency. Juvenile delinquency was itself an invention of 1950s culture, turning young people into yet another threat, providing a cause for fear and a subject for movies.6 The report of the comic book committee reveled in the description of the things it claimed to abhor:

It has been pointed out that the so-called crime and horror comic books of concern to the subcommittee offer short courses in murder, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror. … Many of the books dwell in detail on various forms of insanity and stress sadistic degeneracy. Others are devoted to cannibalism with monsters in human form feasting on human bodies, usually the bodies of scantily clad women.

The report assured us that comics are communist tools. However, a direct influence of comics on adolescent behavior and decaying morals cannot be proved. Despite this, the committee assured the country that “neither the comic-book industry nor any other sector of the media of mass communications can absolve itself from responsibility for the effects of its product.”7

The struggle for political power over public morality, using the media as intermediary, continues. During the regime of George W. Bush, the religious Right continued to pressure the media. The Parents Television Council and the American Family Association make concerted efforts to barrage the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with complaints about media content they find objectionable, or even media technologies that make them fearful. The Parents Television Council tends to describe the content in lip-smacking detail, even posting “objectionable” clips on its Web site. These and other right-wing lobbies, like Focus on the Family, have caused the FCC to enact the 2005 Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which allows it to levy massive fines against the already small, cautious moves the networks might take to make their programming reflect the world. The act carries forward the 1978 Supreme Court ruling, brought by the FCC and instigated by a radio broadcast of a bit by comedian George Carlin, that forbade the airing of “filthy words” at an indecent hour.8

Media producers often thrive when criticism of their content comes from the outside, allowing them to proclaim themselves innocent mediators of public taste. Too often, they fold in the face of pressure. During the Bush regime, right-wing groups created the pressure as government surrogates. During the fifties, media criticism was hardly the province of the government, or even the right wing. Public intellectuals, from left to right, criticized media as vulgar and vulgarizing. Magazine editor, film critic, and former Trotskyite Dwight MacDonald set the tone, midway between Theodor Adorno, the complex analyst of high and low culture, and the Senate comic book committee. MacDonald did not so much attack media as he did their audience. “The question of Masscult is part of the larger question of (p. 8) the masses. The tendency of modern industrial society, whether in the USA or the USSR, is to transform the individual into the mass man. … The masses … are not related to each other at all but only to some impersonal, abstract, crystallizing factory.” That would be media. Masscult is “very, very democratic,” in that it “all comes out finely ground indeed.” For MacDonald, mass culture was as beyond redemption as was the finely ground mass that fed it. He invented another level of debasement to complain about, “Midcult.” Here is mass culture masquerading as high. “In Masscult the trick is plain—to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.”9

From Low Brow to the Extensions of Man

Serious media criticism emerges slowly from this complex mix of politics, cultural criticism, and generalized antipathy. The political-moral antipathies fueled by the cold war, and the not-so-vaguely racist phrenology of high-, middle-, and lowbrow culture, all expressed an anxiety that power was moving not so much to the media producers (which was actually the case) but to the despicable, undiscerning masses who sopped up their products. Condemnation and concern for media's negative effects informed much discourse about media. But studied it had to be. The increasing use of statistical and sociological approaches, concentrating on the “effects” of various kinds of media on various audiences, an approach influenced by another immigrant intellectual, Paul Lazarsfeld, became a way of analyzing media by means of circumventing troublesome value judgments.10

All this helps to account for the reception accorded to McLuhan's Understanding Media. Here was informed, scholarly analysis that was not interested in condemnation, and was deeply concerned with media's formal structures. McLuhan understood that media were not a force that moved downward on culture, or even moved culture itself downward, debasing it in the process. Media were, like any form of expression, of our making, our history, our culture. They expressed us. They mediated the culture. McLuhan's “the medium is the message” became a catchphrase but caught a complex of ideas that enabled the serious study of its subject: content is what form expresses, and form itself is an intricate weave of the media object—a television program, a film, a computer game—the production forces behind it, and the reception of it. McLuhan and his work became media phenomena, well enough known that Woody Allen could give him a “cameo” in Annie Hall (1977).11

(p. 9) Film Studies

McLuhan's star as media subject rose and fell; the seriousness with which he took his own subject was, quite independently, being picked up by film studies. Politics, style, and culture formed what was to become an important force in the critical analysis of media. In the United States, film studies was born partly of politics, partly of the very culture that allowed Woody Allen to put McLuhan in his film in the first place. Before the 1970s, film had separated itself from the “vulgarity” of mass media to become an admired form of art, celebrated, anticipated. The origins of film studies are enmeshed with the renaissance of international filmmaking that began in Europe after WW II. A complex series of events in postwar Europe invigorated European cinema: The Blum-Byrnes Accords in France created quotas for American films on French screens; the development of neorealism in Italy put film crews on the streets of the country's ruined cities. Neorealism revitalized film style; the Blum-Byrnes Accords were responsible for ossifying it.

In Italy, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and their colleagues were confronting the collapse of Fascism by creating melodramas of survival in a mise-en-scène of tangible presence. The French response to the influx of American film was to create a literate and literary cinema, later called the “tradition of quality,” somewhat static, very much studio bound, the opposite of the place-accurate, almost tactile mise-en-scène of the Italians. Responding to French ossification were a group of French filmmakers, who, seeing the works of the Italians, as well as catching up on many years of American film embargoed during the occupation, began a wholesale challenge to the givens of commercial film. The challenge came first in the form of criticism. This is significant because these writers, many of whom—Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, among others—would turn to filmmaking by the late 1950s, continued the prewar movement of serious film discussion. They were shepherded by André Bazin, champion of neorealism, theorist of cinema's capacity for quiet observation, and promoter of film culture.12 Together, they laid the ground for modern film theory.

American filmmaking had begun its own response to convention before the United States's entry into World War II. Orson Welles announced a change in vision in the deep-focused chiaroscuro of Citizen Kane (1941). Following on Kane, pulling in the existential ironies of hard-boiled detective fiction, saturated by the darkening of cultural vision during the war, film noir emerged. The French named it, and it became part of the revitalization of their national cinema, as it was of ours. The French also discovered the potency of a proper name. Viewing many American films released after the embargoes of the war, they recognized that a consistency of visual and narrative style could be categorized by director. Therefore, they nominated directors as the artistic force of a film, analyzed their styles, and, in so doing, (p. 10) pulled American film out of the mass of studio production and into the realm of artistic creation. They saw the trees in the forest, to borrow Andrew Sarris's image for the discovery of the film auteur.13 Influences began crossing back and forth. Neorealist films created particular interest in the United States. One of them, Rossellini's “The Miracle,” a contribution to an omnibus collection of short works (L'amore, 1948) created a spasm of censorship from the Roman Catholic Church, reminiscent of an earlier time that led to the institution of the internal censorship body called the Hays Office in the 1930s. While “The Miracle” was fought in the United States and neorealism in its home country (the Italian Christian Democrats had no use for the neorealists' grim representations, no matter how melodramatic they turned out to be), Hollywood meanwhile absorbed one aspect of the style that became a structural component of the breakdown of the studio system: the streets were substituted for the back lot. Hollywood announced it as realistic.

The French New Wave—the general rubric given those films by critics turned directors—absorbed everything it could. The neorealist movement, in the hands of such directors as Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the young Bernardo Bertolucci, matured into a modernist cinema, reflecting on its own means of image making, becoming an image cinema, and enlivened not only the act of filmmaking, but reception itself—calling on the viewer to become an active participant in reading and interpreting the image.14 In the sixties and seventies, a film culture was born in the United States, and with it an excitement about the possibilities inherent in the cinematic imagination, and an elevation of that imagination that rose into academe and influenced Hollywood itself. This culture was fed by strong, leftist student movements, born of the cold war and the ongoing hot war against Vietnam. These movements found new modes of expression, new discursive relationships with media. The individuals within the movement may or may not have read McLuhan, but they believed and intuited that the medium is indeed the message. Filmmaking approached the status of writing, given a name and a face through the elevation of the director to the status of artist, becoming an academic subject mostly by the force of youngsters seeking a freshened curriculum.

Critical theory in general had reached a place of quietude in the early sixties. The entry of film studies brought with it a raft of theorizing that moved through and changed critical discourse across the board. As they did in filmmaking, the French led the way, while in the United States, native born theory, especially in gender analysis, had a powerful influence on rereading cinema and ultimately all media. In this collection, Brian Price (Chapter 2) reviews the waves and particles of film theory, exposing the connections among them (and the current reaction against them). Perhaps the overriding element of all late-twentieth-century theorizing is how thoroughly it politicized its subject, and, more accurately, how thoroughly it opened the inherent political structure of its subject. Studies of ideology, how film form, generic clusters, economic imperatives, and audience (p. 11) reception, established the links of power within the narrative image and between the image and the viewer.15 This political imperative was at the root of the broader discipline of media studies.

Because filmmaking, observed from the business end, is deeply conservative and profit driven, the political imperative of media is focused in the power that comes from profit, and that profit depends on absorption and extension. From the production perspective, media are not—as McLuhan has it—“extensions of man”; rather, their audience is an extension of media. Under the rubric of “giving the audience what they want,” media give themselves what they need—an expanding bottom line. To that end, they will do what is necessary to create an audience that will buy their products, even if it means, however indirectly, buying into critical theory. When mid-seventies films such as The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, 1974) and Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) made a great deal of money, Hollywood was pleased to recognize their directors. When Heaven's Gate (1980), directed by Michael Cimino, cost United Artists its existence as an independent studio, Hollywood was happy to bump the director off, or at least restrict the name to moneymakers only, or at times create an auteur where none exists, as in the brief instance of M. Night Shyamalan, whose reputation rested on the popularity of one film, The Sixth Sense (1999).

From Historical Film to Film and Media History

Media attempt to maintain a steady state, creating their audience by shifting conventions just enough to create illusions of originality, pulling back when the media producers themselves feel under siege. In 1970, 20th Century Fox released MASH, a film made by an unknown, and already not so young, Robert Altman. Mocking authority, mocking the steady, comfortable gaze and continuity cutting of the authoritative style of Hollywood convention, playing to the vital anti-Vietnam culture of the moment, the film was successful critically and commercially. The same year, the studio released a film about Pearl Harbor, called Tora! Tora! Tora! (Richard Fleisher, Kinji Fukasaku, and Toship Masuda). The film initially was to have some auteur appeal. Akira Kurosawa was to direct the Japanese sequences. This did not happen, and the resulting film stands as the anti-MASH: wooden, earnest, a recitation of government memos by a roster of Hollywood's aging players. Fox franchised MASH into a television series that ran for eleven years. Robert Altman (who had nothing to do with, and gained nothing from, the television series) was able to talk the success of his film into funding for a decade of imaginative, (p. 12) cinematically adventurous commercial failures. In 1985–86, Rupert Murdoch, Australian “media mogul,” owner of European satellite stations, the London Times, and the New York Post, among many others, bought 20th Century Fox and started the Fox Network, whose cable news channel became the propaganda arm of the George W. Bush administration.

The logic of this brief case history exists not only in the movements of cinematic and televisual art, but in the equilibrium and the progress controlled by their producers. How much interaction can we observe between the products—the films, the television series—and the media producers? Was there a conscious attempt on Fox's part to balance MASH with Tora! Tora! Tora!? It is the work of contemporary film historians to explore Fox's archives—were they available to scholars—to find out what the aging Darryl Zanuck and his minions were thinking as the failing company was reaching the end of its independent existence. The spin-off of the television series presents another set of logics, of the taming of an anarchic film, turning it into the genre of workplace comedy, while still retaining some antimilitary edge. The tools of film studies expand into the larger texts of media cultures and economies.

The entry of Rupert Murdoch announces another narrative, the story of media acquisitions and globalization, variously interpreted as a homogenizing of media output to the detriment of national media and individual talent, and as an increased means of access to entertainment and information. Andrew Flibbert (Chapter 17) addresses the interactions of American, Latin American, and Middle Eastern media, noting that “the worldwide integration of the industry … calls into question the very concepts of ‘national’ and ‘foreign’ film production and trade.” He finds a dynamic where Hollywood hegemony and local creativity contend without anyone permanently losing anything. Manjunath Pendakur (Chapter 15) explores the continued dominance of national Indian cinema, stressing its multiplicity and ability to exist alongside of American product within a complex economic web. These essays among others analyze the discourses of media power, where film and television, their production and reception, are more expressions of national interests or global power—fluid and always changing—and less individual works of imagination.

Film Versus Media

Toby Miller and Mariana Johnson (Chapter 8) clearly observe the expansion of film studies into large issues of economics and trade: “Because texts accrete and attenuate meanings on their travels as they rub up against, trope, and are troped by other fictional and social texts, we must consider all the shifts and shocks that (p. 13) characterize their existence as cultural commodities, their ongoing renewal as the temporary ‘property’ of varied, productive workers and publics, and the abiding ‘property’ of business people.” Interesting within the history of film and media studies is that this insight comes relatively late, and in fact is offered by Miller and Johnson as a caution to the field. The reason is, as I have been indicating, that historically film studies started with a notion of film as an art object. I am not thinking of “art cinema” in particular, but of the decision made by film scholars, as their discipline was being formed, that a film could be considered a coherent, expressive text in itself, open to analysis on a number of levels. It had a history, was made up of definable genres, was perhaps the product of a single imagination whose hand and eye could be seen operating in a number of texts, formally and contextually of a piece. The “Hitchcocko-Hawksians,” as the late 1950s-early 1960s French, English, and then American writers were called, promoted a textual history of film, provided a taxonomy based on directorial style, and looked at film as the visual narrative it is, stressing the ways in which their favored directors saw the world cinematically.

The politicization of film studies I discussed earlier—the recognition that the very form and reception of film were part of a larger ideological construct—was built on this conception of film as an art object. While the various ideological and structural analyses of the 1970s seemed to counteract this, pushing in and out of the cinematic text to find how it expressed or countered power, the base was still the film as analyzable object, even as its integrity was called into question by the expansion of the discipline into historical and economic contexts.16 The study of other media almost always focused on the nexus of text, context, industry, culture, and ideology—cultural commodities, the polysemous complex, as John T. Caldwell (Chapter 11) points out, of multiple authorship, interrelated content, and a formal expression that speaks many voices.

Media Studies

I am aware of the risk of setting up a false comparison between film and media studies for the sake of argument. I have already pointed to Gilbert Seldes's study of film as one medium within the cultural surround of the 1920s. The Frankfurt School examined media, film included, within larger, profoundly political and cultural contexts, work that pointed the way to media studies. Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler is—despite its tendentiousness—solidly grounded in the intersections of film and cultural-historical formations. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment, specifically the chapter “The Culture (p. 14) Industry,” had a major impact on our understanding of the ways media, politics, and corporate structures conspire. But “conspire” is the operative word in much of the work of the Frankfurt School: media as a kind of conspiracy, less a thing in itself than a representation of ways in which the dominant power manipulates the dominant culture, homogenizes it, makes it passive, even feminizes it. We recall Kracauer's “little shop girls go to the movies,” along with Adorno's more sophisticated condemnation of the debasements of jazz.17

The Frankfurt School spoke from the position of high left-wing modernism, which observed contemporary culture collapsing in ruins and being reconstituted through an authoritarian structure, mediating the ruins into a chimera of control under the reality of fear. The dialectic was synthesized by positing the model of a high culture of creative intellectual force battling the darkness. The complexity of the model, however, was too much for the popularizers in the 1950s, who could not posit a dialectic, but only work up rage against the debasement of culture and announce the superiority of those observing the debasement. What was missing was something that early film scholars understood implicitly: people respond to the popular, the commercial, and the generic; they embrace it, share it, dwell within it through their imaginations, and even learn from it. The wholesale condemnation of that response has always been counterproductive at best. Needed were ways to address the response without condemnation.

Intellectual groundwork for this process was laid by Walter Benjamin, a peripheral member of the Frankfurt School, a writer of modernity whose curiosity led him to wander through the cultural byways of the first half of the twentieth century with a welcoming analytic mind. In his 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin developed a metaphor that has served to differentiate high art and mass media by emphasizing a complex binary: high art carries the signifier of uniqueness; mass art does not. Benjamin's metaphor of difference is “aura,” a signifier not only of the unique, but of access and emotional response to the singular work. An original painting, for example, is auratic—one of a kind, carrying the barely mediated mark of its creator, urging the viewer to imagine the artist through the work. A television series has no aura. It is created by a number of individuals, each of whom has some input into the final product; it is based on formula and, like all visual narratives created with technology, made in pieces, edited together for best effect, and further fragmented by advertising. Reception of television programming varies in intensity, from attentive, even communal viewing to the use of television as part of the household environment. Reception of the mechanically reproduced works does not have the aura of communing with a singular masterpiece. “Communing” is replaced by “communal” and a sense of connection rather than reverence.

Benjamin did not understand loss of aura as cultural calamity. Quite the contrary, mechanical reproduction (Benjamin used film as his main example) was a democratic, progressive event, bringing imaginative works to an audience who (p. 15) had no access to auratic art. Through mass distribution, technologically reproduced art creates a receptive community linked by individuals’ mutual contact with the reproduced work and an audience responding in kind. The result is that the mechanically reproduced work and its audience begin to intermingle, to respond to each other. The loss of aura is a loss of a boundary and the creation of a new imaginative space:

Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. The difference becomes merely functional; it may vary from case to case. At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer. As expert, which he had to become willy-nilly in an extremely specialized work process, even if only in some minor respect, the reader gains access to authorship.18

This understanding of interaction as opposed to passive reception would provide a break in the deadlock of masscult/midcult versus high art. It would permit critics to understand media as a complex dynamic among all parties, on all levels, allowing that media, even in potential, were a communal act and a socializing force, not a one-way slide into passivity.

Cultural studies emerged in the early 1970s from the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, with a strong base in Benjamin's essay, Marxist materialism, in the work of Adorno, in Antonio Gramsci's theories of hegemony, and the work of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart. At its core was the insistence that culture is not the same as “cultured,” and is the always changing complex of actions and responses, based in history, class, gender, and race. David Golumbia (Chapter 18) points out that the

foundational theorists like [Raymond] Williams and Stuart Hall, along with Fredric Jameson, John Fiske, John Frow, and the authors in the [Lawrence] Grossberg, [Cary] Nelson and [Paula A.] Treichler Cultural Studies anthology, share a profound concern with the politics of our contemporary world, and understand cultural production, including not just media but technical production, as part of this culture, part of us.

The “foundational theorists” were set on accounting for a cultural textuality by discovering coherent sets of meaning-making processes within culture, the various subcultures that make it up, and the media that these subcultures choose and decode. Cultural studies, especially as it addresses the cultures of media, was a break both from the judgmental postures of early cultural and media critics, and from the empiricist methodologies that pretend a “value-free” statistical analysis of the “effects” of media on its audiences. On the contrary, cultural studies values all parts of the complex interactions of audience and media, seeking out the movements and conflicting pressures of ideologies manifested in the ways producers of culture code their artifacts and the consumers of culture decode them.19 It understands culture and its media as a set of interacting discourses, influencing one another, with balances of power constantly shifting.

(p. 16) Film and Media

I need to return for a moment to the boundary that still exists between film studies and media studies, marked by definition and the very nomination of their objects of study. No matter how far film studies has come in its investigations of the cultural, political, and economic contexts of its object, there lingers about film the aura of art. Cultural and media studies rarely nominate their objects as such. Intent on a textual analysis that includes the circuitry of production and reception, they indeed often pay attention to the imaginative text, the work itself that is part of the circulation. But this attention is contained within the larger project of interpretation and appropriation of media by its audience, of understanding imaginative works as commodities in a transnational flow and as mediators of daily life.

Traditional film studies starts with the individual work, genre, or director, and moves outward to larger issues of the ideologies of production and reception, to gender issues, to the effects of distribution on viewership, and increasingly to the ways globalization is affecting national cinemas, always attempting to solidify its ground in theory. Media studies starts with larger textual entities, sometimes isolating a media artifact—a genre of music, a television series, a social-networking site, a computer game—often analyzing these from the perspective of subcultural, audience-specific interaction. Perhaps film studies has never quite removed itself from the aura of art, and perhaps media studies still retains roots in methodologies of sociology and cultural history. But from these roots have come a variety of methodologies, of ways to reimagine imagination itself and the complexities that arise when imagination is put at the service of production and consumption.


I have been using the terms “cultural studies” and “media studies” interchangeably, and surely they are deeply intertwined. Raymond Williams's discovery of the complexities of American television programming, which he developed into the foundational theory of “flow,” certainly sealed the connection.20 Film studies, while privileging the object of its study as art was, from its inception, aware that film had to be understood within a cultural context. Within the university, the three fields of study—culture, media, and film—are beginning to merge. Film, while a thriving discipline since its inception, has grown only slowly in terms of academic units that are devoted exclusively to its study. Like film studies, cultural studies most often exists within existing academic departments, embracing, often infiltrating, traditional (p. 17) disciplines. Media studies, partly as an administrative solution, partly as a way to establish a discipline that moves beyond statistical methodologies in order to situate media as a humanities-based discipline, is absorbing film and cultural studies as well as, in some instances, journalism and mass communications. At its best, the convergence provides an expanded base for theory and analysis and offers a more complex field of research.

Convergence, of course, is coded with a host of meanings outside the university: for media companies, it means an ongoing effort to wring profits from the transition of old analog forms of media to the digital. For consumers, convergence suggests that, as old media move to new, accessibility, portability, interaction, even possibilities for intervention, grow. But digital accessibility cuts all ways. Content producers as well as content users can interact, and the extent of a resulting surveillance becomes clearer daily. The much-prized freedom of digital interaction comes at an increasing price. The “freedom” of the Internet has raised consciousness about ownership and intellectual property, which have emerged as an important field of contending legal opinion.

Convergence puts a different kind of pressure on scholars, who traditionally depend on the stability of their objects of study to allow prolonged observation and analysis. Media scholars, however, are witness to old media forms being transformed by the new, and new media forms creating new audiences within a cultural complex that is itself being altered by its responses to the digital. Film scholars are at risk in the face of changing media. Celluloid-based filmmaking and distribution are coming to an end, and the old, physical carrier of film will turn into archival material. Film is moving toward digital recording and transmission so that, beyond the influence of digital effects within a film, large visual elements, the very quality of the way light is recorded on digital media as opposed to chemically based film, will alter. Even now, cinematographers are being urged by producers to introduce as little “style” as possible in their lighting in order to allow maximum manipulation during the digital phase of production, where every film is transferred to a digital file for editing and effects. Film reception itself is undergoing rapid change as distribution moves from the movie theater to the living room to the computer screen to the mobile phone.

Convergence and globalization work hand in hand, creating an expanding, shifting landscape in which boundaries of every kind liquefy and are transgressed. Globalization of media threatens, from one perspective, the creation of a corporate hegemony, a conquering of borders by business interests that will sweep up national differences and dilute them in a global media soup. From another, globalization will redefine national media, producing new imaginative works, new interactions of audience and media, new policies and politics. This movement, change, and liquidity make the media object, its history and production, its audience, hardly possible to pin down long enough for detailed study. Theory making, unless it begins with an explanation of change, becomes all but impossible. Recall the flurry of critical activity involving “hypertext” in the mid 1990s.21

(p. 18) Any collection of writing on film and media must take into account not only the complex array of issues in film and media, but also this rapidity of change. In this light, I have sought essays that survey their field as well as those that address current issues. Beginning with Jay Bolter's discussion of media remediation, that lays the groundwork for much of the discussion that follows, Brian Price (Chapter 2) offers a history of film theory, while essays by Jeannene Przyblyski (Chapter 5) and Devin Orgeron (Chapter 3) interrogate the image in photography and film. Some contributors reflect on the traditional differences in the critical and theoretical approaches to film and other media, or seek out the history of the immediate in order to provide footing. But any attempt to investigate the sheer complexity of the media landscape can at best point to some features and the connections among them. Taken together, these essays give an idea where the scholarship is and where it is going. I've constrained coverage—for the sake of space and coherence—to visual media: film (including documentary in Frances Guerin's encyclopedic history of the radical image in European documentary filmmaking in Chapter 4), television (William Uricchio provides a fascinating history of television before television in chapter 9, and in chapter 11 John Caldwell investigates the complex, often self-reflexive business practices of television), photography (in Chapter 5, Jeannene M. Przyblyski meditates on the move from traditional to digital photography, providing a political history of the media along the way), media celebrity (Marsha Orgeron's Chapter 6), and the digital. Indeed, many of the essays interrogate the complex nature of the image itself as mediator of politics, of ideology, of “reality.” I have included three essays—David Golumbia's on computers and cultural studies (Chapter 18, an essay that examines the history, mythology, and sociology of digital in the world of realpolitik), Warren Buckland's on media pedagogy (Chapter 19), and Peter Jaszi's overview of intellectual property issues (Chapter 20)—to broaden the scope of media studies into adjoining areas of importance.

I have attempted to include matters of globalization through a number of paths. Toby Miller and Mariana Johnson (Chapter 8) examine one film, Gilda, as text and as part of a global context, interrogating the entire structure and methodology of media studies along the way. Andrew Flibbert (Chapter 17), complementing Cristina Venegas's encyclopedic essay on Latin America (Chapter 16), does a comparative analysis of film production and distribution in both the Middle East and Latin America. There are, as well, essays by Evans Chan, Joseph Schaub, Gina Marchetti, and Manjunath Pendakur (Chapters 12, 13, 14, and 15) that examine particular national cinemas and media in Asia and India.

Finally, I have included two essays in appendixes 1 & 2 by people in the field. Tom Bernard, copresident of Sony Pictures Classics, writes a brief history of the American independent film movement, and Lee Berger and Richard Hollander describe the methodologies of digital effects that are now at the base of all films we see. Their discussion of technique provides a basis for the theorizing of how CGI—computer generated imagery—influences our reception of film.

(p. 19) While each chapter in the collection is self-contained, each also points outward to larger issues, and all are finally deeply interrelated in their desire to understand media productions, media theory, and media culture. Paul Young (Chapter 7), for example, examines genre theory from film to computer games. Joseph Schaub (Chapter 13) investigates the current horror film cycle in Japan, pulling genre theory into an immediate expression of cultural angst. Tara McPherson (Chapter 10), writing on the popular TV series 24, provides an understanding, from inside a particular series, of how television attempts to create an audience as well as spread its content into a variety of media, and moves, once again, from the media into the political sphere.

In June 2006, the cast of 24 was invited to appear at an event sponsored by the right-wing Heritage Foundation. Attendees included Michael Chertoff, head of Homeland Security, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and Rush Limbaugh. It was entitled “‘24’ and America's Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction or Does It Matter?”—perhaps one of the more stunning examples of how the very people who govern us cannot extricate themselves from the media imaginary, and how we can never extricate the media from the political.22


(1.) Paul Young, “The Negative Reinvention of Cinema: Late Hollywood in the Early Digital Age,” Convergence 5 (1999): 24–50.

(2.) Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924), 275–276.

(3.) Quoted by Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922–1952 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 47–48.

(4.) The best recent work on the studios, HUAC, and the blacklist is by Jon Lewis, “‘We Do Not Ask You to Condone This’: How the Blacklist Saved Hollywood,” Cinema Journal 39.2 (2000): 3–30. The standard work is Victor Navasky, Naming Names (New York: Viking Press, 1980).

(5.) Lewis, “‘We Do Not Ask You to Condone This,’” 4.

(6.) See James Gilbert, Cycle of Outrage: America's Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

(7.) Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency: Interim Report of the Committee on the Judiciary Pursuant to S. Res. 89 and S. Res. 190 (83d Cong. 1st Sess.)–(83d Cong. 2d Sess.), Mad magazine publisher William M. Gaines played the comic book committee not unlike the way Bertolt Brecht played HUAC. Both understood the basic malevolent stupidity of the process. Gaines was happy to tweak the committee members with the communist card: “So the next time some joker gets up at a PTA meeting, or starts jabbering about ‘the naughty comic books’ at your local candy store, give him the once-over. We are not saying he is a Communist. He may be a dupe. He may not even read the Daily Worker. It is just that he's swallowed the Red bait—hook, line and sinker.”

(8.) The Parents Television Council site is at Focus on the Family is at The Supreme Court ruling—a very interesting document in the history of media policy—can be found at

(9.) Dwight MacDonald, “Masscult & Midcult,” Against the American Grain (New York: DaCapo Press, 1983), 6, 8, 20. An excellent survey of the place of media—film studies in particular—can be found in Jonathan Auerbach, American Studies and Film, Blindness and Insight,” American Quarterly 58.1 (2006): 31–50.

(10.) See, for example, Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton, “Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action,” in Mass Culture: the Popular Arts in America, ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957), 457–473.

(11.) Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).

(12.) See James Monaco, The New Wave (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976); Robert Kolker, The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983),; Dudley Andrew, André Bazin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

(13.) Andrew Sarris, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” in Film Theory and Criticism, 6th ed., ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 561–564.

(14.) I'm playing very loosely on Deleuze's “time-image.” See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema, 2 vols., trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, 1989).

(15.) The work of Louis Althusser was a key influence on the ideological analysis of film. See For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Viking Books, 1970).

(16.) Key is the analysis of John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln undertaken by the editors of the influential French journal Cahiers du cinema. It can be found in Bill Nichols, ed., Movies and Methods, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 493–529.

(17.) Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995); Theodor Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Seabury Press, 1976). For an interesting study of Adorno's theories of radio, see Robert Hullot-Kentor, “Second Salvage: Prolegomenon to a Reconstruction of ‘Current of Music,’” Cultural Critique 60 (2005): 134–169.

(18.) Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 232.

(19.) Norma Schulman, “Conditions of Their Own Making: An Intellectual History of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham,” Canadian Journal of Communications 18 (1993). Stuart Hall's essay “Encoding/Decoding” is in Media and Cultural Studies, 2nd ed., eds. Meenakashi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2005), 163–173.

(20.) Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1974).

(21.) For example, George Landow, Hyper/text/theory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

(22.) Paul Farhi, “Calling on Hollywood's Terrorism ‘Experts’: Homeland Security Chief Compares Reality and ‘24,’” Washington Post, June 14, 2006; Maureen Dowd, “We Need Chloe!” New York Times, June 24, 2006.